As I chased a naked screaming three-foot-tall child across the field behind the Catholic Church I swore I would never judge another parent for their child’s tantrum. I was running full speed in the middle of a hot summer day. His pale five-year-old arms flailed through the air—his bare feet tearing through the green summer grass.
My second thought was “I’m definitely going to get arrested.” Admittedly the scene looked pretty bad. It would be totally understandable if a concerned onlooker phoned 911. “Yes, there is a white male in his mid-twenties chasing after a young naked boy…yes…that’s right…behind the Catholic Church.”
But it wasn’t what it looked like. When you’re working with a child with special needs, it’s never what it looks like.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that mistakes were made on that day. But before you declare me unfit to work with children, allow me to tell you the events leading up to the incident in question. And maybe you’ll think twice the next time you see a child melting down in public.
If you looked at a photograph of this particular child—let’s call him Chris—you wouldn’t notice anything unusual. He’s cute, he has a charming smile, and his parents dress him like a Baby Gap model.
But within 30 seconds of meeting Chris I realized that he was unusual. I was hired to serve as his personal care assistant for a summer job when I was 27. The first things I noticed when I walked into Chris’ house were the bite marks in the couch. Like, big bites.
As I shook hands with his mother, Chris smiled and then climbed up my body like a spider monkey, making a series of unintelligible squeaks in my ear. “As you can see, Chris is very athletic. He’s as healthy as any 4 year old.” His mother said trying to pull her son off her potential new employee. “He likes you. He only climbs on people he likes. ”
She set Chris on the floor and he immediately began chewing on the couch cushion. His mother turned and pulled him off, clearly hoping I wasn’t going to run out the door and never come back. She rubbed her son’s shoulders and spoke soothingly to him. “Well, you’re really getting the full treatment here.” She nervously laughed. “The child psychologist says Chris has the mental capacity of a four-month-old and like other kids that age, he has a mouth obsession. The technical term is Pica where he eats non-food items.”
I looked around their town house and suddenly I noticed there were teeth marks on everything, including the mom’s hand. I swallowed my swelling anxiety, and bent down to talk to Chris. “Hey Chris. I’m Nathan. And we are gonna have a lot of fun this summer.”
Chris and I actually did have a lot of fun that summer. I found out that Chris loves water. He would sit in the bathtub splashing and crashing his floaty toys together until the water got cold. He loves swimming in the kiddie pool on their deck, taking the mini slide into the shallow water, standing up, shaking himself dry and starting over. He could do this for hours.
He also loves playgrounds. But playgrounds are a little trickier. Because any time you take a child like Chris out in public, you’re taking a calculated risk.
This holds true for most special needs kids. At home parents and caregivers can sanitize the environment. If a child cries whenever he can’t have his Legos, then you hide the Legos until it’s time to play with them. Out of sight, out of mind. But Target won’t put away their Lego set so you can get your grocery shopping done without your kid screaming at you as you try and swipe your credit card, all as the stares of the other shoppers are beating down on you. You can practically hear them thinking, “If that was my kid I’d _____.” But…well I’ll stop there for now.
Chris loves playgrounds but it was hard to find a playground that worked for him. His pica forced us to avoid playgrounds that were surrounded by large rocks and wood chips—anything large enough to choke on. Luckily for him he has a digestive system like diesel engine, so he can handle a handful of most small objects.
He also grabs at other kids, and if they are bigger than him, he sometimes tries to climb on them. So as you can imagine, we had to find empty playgrounds to play on.
There is one last thing that you should know about Chris. He can’t control his bladder so he wears a diaper. And when Chris gets a full diaper his pica flares up and…well you get the idea.
So now that you know the background, let me go back and explain why I was chasing Chris across the Catholic Church field. Chris and I went to that playground because it was empty and it was padded with small rocks, so Chris wouldn’t choke if he happened to swallow one. It was a nice big playground and Chris loved the long slides. But there was a tunnel that he also loved climbing through.
Now in retrospect I should have gotten up there with him and watched him crawl through the tunnel. But I wanted to try and give him some space…you know…to be a kid.
On that day he emerged from the tunnel crying. The blood drained from my face as I saw chunks of feces smeared on his hands and around his mouth. I pleaded with him to come down. He walked to the slide, slid down and I picked him up. He was sobbing, I’m sure from the taste in his mouth, and he wrapped his poop covered hands around my neck as I ran to the car. I always kept it stocked with wet wipes and fresh clothes.
I set him down in the parking lot and opened the car door to shield him from the road traffic. As I grabbed the wet wipes I could feel my sweat mingling with the feces on my arms and the back of my neck. I began wiping off Chris’ face and hands as he cried and screamed. Then I pulled off his soiled shirt and shorts. I took off his diaper and reached in to the car to grab his fresh clothes. But when I turned around, he was running across the field, stark naked, screaming, arms flailing.
I did eventually get him back home. And thankfully the cops were not called.
When I told his mother the story, she laughed and told me that I had finally earned my stripes.
I tell you this story to remind you that there is a lot going on behind the scenes. When you see that child having a tantrum in the grocery store parking lot or screaming at his parent, remember you don’t know the whole story.
I have worked in homes, in public schools, and churches where parents of kids with special needs have cried because they are so overwhelmed. They want their kid to have as normal a life as possible, but they hate getting stared at when their child throws a tantrum in public. They don’t know if they can stand hearing another person give them some useless advice. “You just need to be firm.” “Maybe that child just needs an old fashion spanking.” Or the worst “If that was my child, ____”
I get the impulse. People stare because it’s a unique situation. That’s what our brains do. We look at things that are out of the ordinary. And when you offer advice, you’re trying to help. But it’s not the time or place for watching or advice.
These young people get embarrassed that they lose control. I have talked to many kids who say the worst part about having a special need is having everyone stare at them.
So the next time you see a child throwing a tantrum take a deep breath swallow your judgment and try not to stare. And if it really looks like the caregiver could use a hand then walk up to them and politely ask: “How can I help?”
But let me warn you. You might not like the answer. If someone would have asked me How can I help? as Chris ran across the field that day, I would have handed them a pile of poopy wet wipes and told them to find a garbage.
If you really want to help then follow our lead. If a parent or caregiver gives you an instruction, just do it, because this isn’t our first rodeo. We actually do this all the time. And we’re usually pretty good at it. We knew that taking our kids out was a risk. But we love them enough to take that risk.